‘Eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth.’ Mike Leigh’s extraordinary new film Mr. Turner is a tender and touching portrayal of Britain’s greatest artist, JMW Turner. We may think we know the art, but how well do we know the man? Tate Etc. talks to the director (whose research included a visit to Tate’s Prints and Drawings Room) about the experience of filming what he describes as ‘the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet’

Simon Grant There have been many films about artists over the decades, done with varying degrees of success, such as Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt (1936), Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Bruno Nuytten’s Camille Claudel (1988) and Ed Harris’s Pollock (2000). Why did you decide to do a film about Turner?

Mike Leigh Well, he is one of the greats, and there hasn’t been a motion picture about him, so it seemed like a good idea to make one. Mr. Turner is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength. This is what fascinates me. It is also an attempt to evoke the dramatic changes in his world over the last quarter century of his life. There are, no doubt, other painters about whom you could make a film, and their work and lives might be interesting, but they wouldn’t immediately present themselves as ticking all the boxes for a central character in a Mike Leigh film, whereas Turner does. He was a giant among artists, single-minded and uncompromising, extraordinarily prolific, revolutionary in his approach, consummate at his craft, clairvoyant in his vision. Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry.

Also, although I’m a participator in world cinema, it’s part of my remit to make films that come out of our culture here in the UK. My film Topsy-Turvy is an example of that, albeit one that turns the camera on artists who do the trivial, whereas this is about an artist who does the sublime and the profound. It’s a continuation of an investigation into something particularly English or British… or London. Turner is a very weird one for me, because despite coming from a mostly philistine provincial background, I was into art as a younger teenager. By the time I was 14 I certainly had postcards of the impressionists and Picasso pinned on the wall, but Turner and Constable were chocolate boxes and biscuit tins. Then, when I was at Camberwell Art School in the 1960s, I started to twig – to understand him in terms of what we were actually doing, in a painterly way. And he grows on you: suddenly you have a series of revelations because the work is so diverse and comprehensive. But it wasn’t until around the time we’d made Topsy-Turvy when it started to dawn on me that, actually, the tension between the character and the nature of the work could make a really cinematic subject.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth' exhibited 1842
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842

SG What did you know about Turner the man before you started?

ML Not much before the end of about 1998. I started to read about him. The trouble is when you begin to know things, you can’t remember what you didn’t know beforehand. But I don’t think that matters. The important thing is we got stuck into it, and found out. Because making these sorts of films is a matter of research, anyway.

SG Why did you chose to focus on the last 25 years of his life?

ML Well, that’s fairly straightforward. First of all, I didn’t want to make a biopic, which, apart from anything else, would involve finding a small version of Timothy Spall. Most of my films take place over a fortnight or a weekend. As far as Mr. Turner is concerned, it starts at the death of his father, which was important and traumatic, and ends with his own death, and within that time span there are the various famous events that become set pieces. So it wrote itself. Everything that you don’t see in the film, you still learn about. You get all the story about how he was a kid; how he used to sell his drawings in his father’s barber shop; how he went away to school; a whole bunch of references to the Battle of Trafalgar and so on. So if you do the dramatist’s job properly, you can put it all in without actually having to traipse through his life.

SG One of the most touching relationships in the film is Turner’s with his father. It is an aspect of his life that is not so well known.

ML That was our response to what we understood about it. The mother had been completely bonkers and locked up in Bedlam, behaving in an extraordinarily erratic way, which brought the father and son together. It is a moving relationship. And Paul Jesson does a fantastic job.

SG The unexpectedness of Turner’s character and his relationship with other people come across in many ways throughout the film. There is one particular scene, for example, when he is staying at Petworth House, the home of one of his great patrons, Lord Egremont, and he is in a room alone with a lady who is singing and playing the clavichord. He talks about his love of Henry Purcell and falteringly sings to her rendition. It encapsulates his complex nature, both the passion and struggle to express himself that sits at odds with his gruff personality. And there is also a sexual tension there.

ML There are any number of ways to read that scene. I felt it was important that it should be near the beginning of the film so that it helps you quite early on to get a three-dimensional understanding of him. Mr. Turner is not a plot film – you accumulate a sense of him as it progresses.

SG Through the process of your research (which included looking at some Turner watercolour sketches in Tate archives) and the making of the film, did you get an essence of the man as someone who was searching for something, and if so, what?

ML If the question is, what was he searching for, and did he find it, I don’t know the answer to that, any more than to say we are turning the camera round on what we do. Certainly, nobody making that film, myself included, achieves what Turner achieved. But my sort of film is very much a creative journey to try to discover what it is by doing it. You make it up as you go along. You’re exploring something, although you don’t know exactly what it is. So we understand that that’s what Turner did. But if you get down to such questions as what was it, I don’t know; that’s a question with no answer, and nor should there be one. However, if we take away from the work something that resonates with us, and which we feel, then we know what it was in some form. That’s about as useful an analysis as I can give.

SG There are a lot of artists and art figures that appear in the film – Benjamin Haydon, Clarkson Stanfield, Sir John Soane and, of course, John Ruskin. It is fascinating to see these people brought to life, and you get a very clear idea of how Turner fitted into this volatile artistic landscape. How did you approach these characters?

ML Well, we had a Turner expert, Jacqueline Riding, on board as our researcher for a couple of years. We assembled all Turner’s contemporary artists that could possibly appear, and selected the most relevant. All these named characters were played by professional actors who can also paint. As with all the other characters in the film, each went off and researched his character, and how they related to each other, to the Royal Academy and to Turner. We did what I do with a contemporary piece, which is to build up the whole back story. Then we did improvisations, rehearsed thoroughly, and arrived at the action you see. We have a brilliant woman who lines up film extras. She scoured Sheffield, where we filmed the varnishing day sequence, and found all these young, middle-aged and elderly local artists, some amateur, some professional; they were great. The important thing is not to try to have every detail on display. As long as the rest of the iceberg is there, the tip is believable.

SG The scene when all the artists come together on varnishing day to put the finishing touches to their paintings is a very intense moment. It doesn’t really happen nowadays, but back then it was where the competitive nature of artists came to the fore. It was made famous by Turner’s spat with Constable in 1832, when he nonchalantly added a red blob to his seascape as Constable put the finishing touches to his painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, which he had been working on for 10 years.

ML We dramatised that anecdote precisely.

SG At two points in the film there are several references to Turner’s painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) 1840, once when we see the young John Ruskin and his father pondering over buying the picture, and secondly when we see it in the Ruskins’ hallway when Turner pays a visit. Even though slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the painter was aware of its ongoing existence, and had read Thomas Clarkson’s The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade. Turner the artist with a social conscience is one side of him that tends to be overlooked, but was it a particular decision on your part to include this aspect?

ML Its inclusion emanates in the first place from the simple fact that the Ruskins bought the painting, which gave us the opportunity for it to be expressed. Of course I put in the reference to slavery earlier when Turner talks about it to Mr and Mrs Booth on his first visit to Margate, which was a concoction. So there was already some sense of the currency of the issue by the time slaves are referred to later. This then allowed us to introduce our first dose of Ruskin nonsense when he analyses the Slavers painting in purely technical terms, ignoring the story of slaves.

SG There are other elements in the film that give us an image of the changing social and economic landscape of Turner’s day. For example, when we meet Lord Egremont for the first time, the artist asks him about his new agricultural machinery. That also seems a conscious decision to touch on what was going on at that time…

ML Actually, I’m intrigued by people’s fascination with newfangled things, and there was quite a lot of that in Topsy-Turvy with the impact of the telephone, fountain pen and electric doorbell. The thing about Turner is that he was interested in everything. I think it’s sufficient for him just to see this train, for him to go off and paint it. He discovers photography – quite late on – and immediately spots the influence that it can, or will have, on painting. Of course, by that stage he had already had his revolution; he had already progressed to a kind of painting that photography was going to cause to happen.

SG Despite that, do you think he is scared of photography – the next big thing?

ML To be honest with you, I think his reaction is more philosophical. Rather than being scared of it, he is intrigued and fascinated, but also sees the dangers.

SG In a scene later in the film, he is near the end of his life and we see him visiting an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite painting at the Royal Academy. It seemed there was a sense of nervousness about a new generation of artists that he didn’t have a connection to or understand.

ML Oh yes! But then again, he just chortles at their work. Apparently, Turner was quite supportive of the Pre-Raphaelites, but there’s also evidence of his scepticism. For me, it seemed to make sense for him to chortle at this incredibly self-conscious art.

SG There is a great scene near the end of the film that resonates with the ethos of Tate and other public cultural institutions. Turner receives a visitor in his viewing gallery, a pen nib manufacturing millionaire, the archetypal Victorian entrepreneur, who wants to buy his entire œuvre and offers him £100,000 (about £10m today), but he refuses, saying that he has bequeathed all his work to the nation ‘to be seen all together, in one place, gratis’. The ideology that the nation’s art, including Turner’s, should be available for everyone is at the heart of Tate. Was that something that was important to you when you thought about this scene?

ML Yeah, it’s important to all of us. It’s fundamental. We’ve grown up in a world where there are galleries that can be accessed for free, but in Turner’s day the options were limited. To me, his gift to the nation was a central thing that happened, so this seemed the one simple way of dealing with that. I remember when the Heath government, strapped for cash, introduced museum charges in 1974. It caused such a fuss that they scrapped it almost straight away; they were damn near lynched, you know. So I think our post-war sense of entitlement – and very proper entitlement – is ingrained in our culture.

Mr. Turner goes on general release in October. The film features several Tate works, including Norham Castle, Sunrise, Death on a Pale Horse, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps and The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons. The Prints and Drawings Room, where Mike Leigh did some of his first-hand research, is available to visit by appointment. The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, is on display at Tate Britain until 25 January 2014